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date: 02 March 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter discusses the primary themes in this handbook and introduces the works of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

Keywords: Soren Kierkegaard, authorship, philosophy, religion, literature

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard's relatively short life—5th May 1813 to 11th November 1855—was largely devoted to what he called his ‘authorship’. This began as two series of books, one published under a range of different pseudonyms and dealing with a variety of literary, philosophical, and religious questions, the other published under his own name and made up of devotional writings of a kind he referred to as ‘upbuilding’ or ‘edifying’ works. These two series, published between 1843 and 1846, were followed by a further sequence of writings of a primarily religious nature, several of which he at one point considered publishing in a volume entitled The Works of Fulfilment. Finally, in the last year of his life he wrote a series of furious newspaper articles and pamphlets attacking the idea of an established Church, with particular reference to his own Danish Lutheran Church. Throughout most of his life, he also penned a large number of journal articles and notebooks, including several full-length manuscripts, which he left unpublished at his death but with the expectation that they would be published posthumously. The subject of this Handbook is therefore this ‘authorship’—its context, content, and ‘effective history’ (this last referring to the idea developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer that every cultural text is to be understood not only in terms of its context and inner rationale but also its continuing impact on all who are subsequently—and not necessarily consciously—affected by it).

Who was Søren Kierkegaard? We shall return to our rationale for the particular selection of topics that are to be addressed in the main part of the Handbook, but it is impossible to leave Kierkegaard the man entirely out of the picture, not least because the reception of his thought has often been inseparable from judgements as to the kind of man he was. For example, many contemporaries regarded the final attack on the Church, in which he deployed hyperbolic sarcasm and sometimes bitter personal comments, as manifesting either insanity or, at best, a warped personality. This, of course, helped those on the receiving end of his criticisms to avoid taking them seriously, but the idea that there is something morbidly unhealthy about Kierkegaard has stuck—witness the episode in Carl Dreyer's classic film Ordet [The Word], in which the madness of the theological student Johannes is attributed to his having read too much Kierkegaard (see (p. 2) Ziolkowski 2011: 293–309). But even with regard to the extreme writings of the last year, others have seen Kierkegaard's stance as a kind of martyrdom and his early death as the sacrifice that sealed the meaning of his life.1 Such a range of responses suggests that while it is impossible to keep Kierkegaard the man entirely out of the picture, it is almost equally impossible to get him into the picture in any focused, consistent, or unambiguous way, and that the reasons for this are more complex than the elusiveness of any historical personality. Nevertheless, such has been—and continues to be—the role of Kierkegaard's personality (or readers’ perceptions of his personality) in interpreting his work that we can scarcely do otherwise than open this Handbook with a brief survey of the life and some of the interpretative issues connected with it.

Kierkegaard's life was not eventful in the way that many nineteenth-century lives were eventful. He did not man the barricades or go to war; he did not venture into the unexplored hinterlands of Africa, Asia, or the Americas; nor did he pioneer any new technologies or develop new industries. Indeed, his pseudonym Johannes Climacus (if he may be allowed to speak for Kierkegaard in this case) gently mocks his own inability to contribute to anything that his age regarded as suggesting ‘greatness’.

In lieu of such events, his biographers have therefore tended to focus on four main areas, two of which are of an essentially private nature. These are: the circumstances of his childhood, with particular emphasis on his relationship with his father; the breaking off of his engagement to Regine Olsen; the literary spat with the satirical journal The Corsair; and, finally, the attack on the established Church. This has nevertheless been enough to generate a mountain of secondary literature, not least because the period that saw the first major reception of Kierkegaard's work, i.e. the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was dominated by the view that the meaning of literary work was to be found in the life and mind of the author. (This was, of course, the period that saw the birth of psychoanalysis and related movements.) Kierkegaard's own insistence on the primacy of ‘subjectivity’ in relation to religion and personal existence itself contributed to this tendency, whether or not that was what he intended. If we believe, with Wordsworth, that the child is father to the man, it is easy to see why Kierkegaard's own childhood would be scrutinized for its possible contribution to interpreting the complex thought-world of the adult writer. But precisely with regard to Kierkegaard's childhood we immediately run up against the reasons why it is perhaps ultimately impossible to get any definitive focus on the ‘secret’ of his personality. For although both published and unpublished works seem to offer provocative hints as to the dark familial secrets that might have generated an authorship that circled around themes such as anxiety, melancholy, guilt, despair, and suffering, these same hints are consistently ambiguous—even, at times, mutually contradictory—and of uncertain literary status. How much is indirect (p. 3) confession? How much is deliberate mystification? How much is pure literary invention? Did his father really believe that his family was under a curse as a cold and hungry child he himself had once cursed God? Or was it a more recent transgression of a sexual nature, possibly involving the father's second wife (Søren's mother) with whom he possibly slept prior to their marriage (Garff 2005: 131–8)? Or was the sexual transgression Søren's own, perhaps a botched visit to a brothel à la Nietzsche, resulting either in syphilis or the possibility that he had fathered a child (SKS6: 257–68/SLW: 276–88; cf. Heiberg 1912, Hohlenberg 1940: 89–90)? Was he latently homosexual (Friedman 1949: 43–4)? Or was the issue basically to do with his physical deformity (Haecker 1948)—the hunched back of which The Corsair's cartoonist made much? Was he simply epileptic—in that time a legal barrier to marriage (Hansen 1994; Garff 2005: 457–60)? All these and other hypotheses have been ventured, some have been explored in detail, but none has acquired a consensus. And even were such consensus to be achieved, the question would still remain as to how far particular aspects of his work or its overall tendency would then be explained.

Even if we limit ourselves to Kierkegaard's adult life as documented in the journals and in others’ memoirs (Kirmmse 1996) it seems hard to escape ambiguity and uncertainty. Was he a pampered and narcissistic poet, irritably remarking the absence or shortcomings of his servants and oblivious to the wretchedness of the inhabitants of the hostel for the poor directly opposite his flat (Garff 2005: 535–40)? Or was he the friend of the common man, mindful of his peasant origins and speaking up for those excluded from the elite literary and ecclesiastical circles (Bukdahl 2001)? Or are there elements of both? Are the many pages of complaints at his treatment by The Corsair evidence of hyper-sensitivity and neurotic self-obsession? Or are they only too comprehensible in the light of our more recent knowledge of the effects of media excesses? And was this man who became an important source for many modern Jewish thinkers himself an anti-Semite (Tudvad 2010)? Was his final battle a witness to Christian truth, or was he half way to a post-Christian humanism (Brandes 1877)? In all these cases—unlike speculation about his childhood—the evidence is all in the public sphere, but how to read it remains supremely debatable, as some of the responses to Joakim Garff's monumental biography of 2000 (English trans. 2005) reveal.

Perhaps, then, the point is that it is precisely the Protean, mercurial, and multi-voiced nature of Kierkegaard the man that makes him so dangerously fascinating to his now many generations of interpreters. For the truth is that, poor in outward events as it was, Kierkegaard's life is among the most fascinating of the nineteenth century and it is fascinating because he was, so to speak, both Newman and Nietzsche, both Baudelaire and Ibsen, both a decadent and edifying writer, the ‘melancholy Dane’ and a master of spiritual comfort and guidance. The question of Kierkegaard the man, then, inevitably turns us back to the question of Kierkegaard the author and to the authorship itself, its content and its impact.

We have chosen to divide this handbook into three main parts: ‘Contexts and Sources’, ‘Some Major Topics in the Authorship’, and ‘Kierkegaard after Kierkegaard’.

Part I begins with what is perhaps the most elementary aspect of our relation to Kierkegaard: the texts in which we read his words, how they were written, and how they (p. 4) have been transmitted to us through a sequence of publications. Going on from here we look at aspects of Kierkegaard's physical and cultural environment—the city where he lived, and the writers and thinkers who shaped his intellectual landscape. Although these include many figures whom he knew and interacted with on a personal level—and, not least, the Church community to which he belonged and with which he developed a complex and conflicted relationship—they also involve sources stretching back to classical antiquity and to the Bible, as well as the history of theology in which he was trained academically and to which he would himself make such an important contribution. In addressing such themes as ‘Romanticism’ and ‘German Idealism’ here, we are also trying to step back from narrow conceptions that would reduce his complex and productive appropriation of these movements to a simple opposition to one or other representative figure—as has most notably happened in the case of his relation (or, as Jon Stewart felicitously put it, ‘relations’) to Hegel (Stewart 2003).

In Part II we turn to ‘Some Major Topics in the Authorship’. Many readers will here note the omission of articles specifically entitled ‘anxiety’, ‘the leap of faith’, ‘the paradox’, ‘the absurd’, ‘despair’, and other familiar terms commonly associated with Kierkegaard. This is not because we have wilfully ignored them. Rather, we believe that while a focus on what might be called ‘key terms’ could be appropriate to a Kierkegaard Dictionary or Encyclopedia, the purposes of this Handbook are better served by seeing these ideas in their larger context. Indeed, it could be argued that it is precisely a focus on such terms, torn out of their context, which has been responsible for some of the worst misreadings of Kierkegaard over the last century and a half, such as the often repeated charge that Kierkegaard was an ‘irrationalist’, propounding a version of faith that is radically opposed to reason and proud of it. (Alastair Mackinnon, for example, has shown that the term ‘leap of faith’ only enters Kierkegaard's vocabulary in English translation (Mackinnon 1993).) Thus, anxiety and despair are discussed, for instance, in the chapter on selfhood and spirit; ‘the paradox’ and ‘the absurd’ in the chapter on Kierkegaard's theology; and ‘faith’ in numerous contributions. Overall, we have tried in Part II to combine a focus on topics the experienced reader of Kierkegaard might expect to see in such a collection (such as the importance of pseudonymity and aspects of Kierkegaard's ethics and theology; together with his views on selfhood, love, and irony) with perhaps less obvious—but, we consider, highly important—themes (Kierkegaard's view of time and history; of Bildung (or culture); death; and aspects of his social and political critique of modernity).

Part III, ‘Kierkegaard after Kierkegaard’, is concerned with aspects of the way Kierkegaard's thought has been received in various philosophical, theological, and literary traditions, as well as containing an article on the challenges faced in translating Kierkegaard into English. The relationships between Kierkegaard's thought and that of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and phenomenologists such as Levinas, Derrida, and Marion, are explored, as is his complex and ambivalent relation to ‘postmodernism’. The influence of his thought on Wittgenstein and the Wittgensteinian tradition is also considered, followed by a chapter sketching the links between Kierkegaard and numerous anglophone moral philosophers, with particular emphasis on Alasdair MacIntyre and narrative-based (p. 5) views of practical identity. Finally, following a survey of Kierkegaard's influence on numerous key figures in theology since his death, the volume concludes with two chapters on his impact on literature, both in English and other European languages.

Wide-ranging though these articles are, there is more that could be said about the extent of the impact of Kierkegaard's thought, as we can see if we step back and consider some of the aspects of Kierkegaard reception that we have been unable to take up in detail.

It has often been said that Kierkegaard did not enter the English-speaking world until the 1930s because of his having written in Danish. Yet his contemporary and rival, Hans Lassen Martensen, was not only translated into English in his lifetime but hailed in T. & T. Clark's publicity material as possibly Lutheranism's greatest theologian of the nineteenth century. For Britain and the United States, it was not the lack of knowledge of Danish that inhibited Kierkegaard's early reception but the absence of an appropriate horizon within which to receive his ideas. This horizon would be provided in the interwar years by Karl Barth's dialectical theology and Heidegger's philosophy of existence (Pattison 2009). Heidegger would also be a pivotal point of reference in the French reception of Kierkegaard and, indirectly (through the exiled Russian writer Lev Shestov), Kierkegaard's reception in Russia. Yet Barth and Heidegger were themselves inheritors of an earlier phase of Kierkegaard's reception, which reached its high point in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years preceding the First World War. Here Kierkegaard appears as one of many representatives of a new literary and spiritual consciousness, sharing intellectual and cultural space with Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, and Indian philosophy (see, e.g. Kassner 1911). As the apostle of the individual, he spoke to a complex multicultural society in which the bonds linking individual, social, and religious identity were being tested to breaking point. From Lukacs to Kafka, Buber to Haecker, and Wittgenstein to Kraus, Kierkegaard could thus become spokesperson for the struggle for identity and self-commitment in an age when things were only too palpably falling apart.

This context would also be important for the impact of Kierkegaard on twentieth-century Jewish philosophy. Despite a relatively limited reception in Israel itself (see Golomb 1998), there is evidence for Kierkegaard having been among the key points of intellectual reference for a number of major Jewish thinkers and writers. Buber and Kafka have already been named (Lukacs, Wittgenstein, and Kraus, though Jewish by origin were not, to borrow a phrase from Levinas (see below), thinkers of Judaism). Kierkegaard's influence on Buber was far more significant than the somewhat negative article ‘The Question to the Single One’ (Buber 1947 [1936]) might suggest (see Šajda 2011), although his development of a philosophy of dialogue might be seen precisely as turning away from Kierkegaard-the-exponent-of-individualism who was welcomed (and perhaps even invented) in the early Austro-Hungarian reception of his work. If Kierkegaard entered into Buber's thought-world in the period prior to the First World War, Shestov reported that, on his journey to invite Husserl to lecture at the Sorbonne in 1928, Kierkegaard was a major topic of conversation among Buber and others he visited in Frankfurt (see Pattison 2011). Shestov himself was, of course, of Jewish origins and never formally converted to Christianity, although he was not a practising member of a synagogue and, as Levinas put it in a review of Shestov's book on Kierkegaard, he was (p. 6) not essentially a thinker of Judaism. Levinas, too, like Buber, seems to have wanted consciously to distance himself from Kierkegaard, although, as many commentators have pointed out (especially with regard to Works of Love), the Kierkegaardian resonances of many of his key ideas are more apparent than he might have wished (see, e.g. Ferreira 2001; Simmons and Wood 2008; Welz 2008; Westphal 2008). Franz Rosenzweig, a colleague of Buber's in the translation of the Scriptures and a major influence on Levinas himself makes strong and overt Kierkegaardian gestures in the first part of The Star of Redemption, although not subsequently (Rosenzweig 1985 [1919]; see also Welz 2011). Reasons why Kierkegaard might have appealed especially to a number of early to mid-twentieth-century Jewish figures are perhaps not hard to find. In his own way, he articulated a crisis of identity involving a threefold tension between religion, society, and family that also marked their experience. In a book-length study Abraham Joshua Heschel compared Kierkegaard to the charismatic but extraordinary Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotz (Heschel 1973). Attention has also often been drawn to his distinctive way of reading the Bible that some commentators see as closer to Jewish exegetical traditions than to the standard Christian methods of his own Lutheran tradition (although see Gellmann 2003 on key differences in the account of the Akedah or binding of Isaac). Even if the secular and, in philosophy largely ‘analytic’, culture of Israel today means that Kierkegaard is only a marginal presence, there are significant Israeli voices in contemporary Kierkegaard scholarship (e.g. Jerome Gellmann, previously cited; see also Krishek 2009). More recently, the question of Kierkegaard's relation to Judaism has been provocatively sharpened by strong and meticulously documented accusations of anti-Semitism (Tudvad 2010—although whether the documentation entirely supports all of Tudvad's claims is open to question).

Other times and places have no less significantly shaped how Kierkegaard has been received. Japan's unique relation to the West meant that, as later with Heidegger, Kierkegaard was early on received in Japan and read in the perspective of modernizing and westernizing developments in Buddhist thought (see Giles 2008). Elsewhere, the unique status of George Lukács in Hungary's intellectual life meant that his own early Kierkegaardianism provided a point of reference for accessing Kierkegaard in a communist bloc environment in which he was officially regarded as a degenerate proponent of bourgeois ideology (Nagy 1998, 2009). Other contexts of persecution have also sharpened Kierkegaard's witness to the truth of the individual in the face of persecution by the majority (Jahanbegloo 2009). Existentialism and postmodernity have both been shaped by Kierkegaard himself and provided contexts in which different aspects of his thought come to the fore, often controversially—as several of the contributions to this volume testify.

However, as these comments already indicate, this collection is far from being exhaustive—as Jon Stewart's series of collections on the reception of Kierkegaard's work more than amply illustrates, Japan is only one significant non-Western European/North American context of reception among others (see Stewart 2009). Indeed, whether it is with regard to Kierkegaard's historical and contextual background, the content of his work or its reception in and impact on subsequent movements and individuals in philosophy, theology, and other areas of culture, we are fully aware that even a work as (p. 7) substantial as this can only reflect a small part of an extraordinary and, in many ways unique and unclassifiable, author and authorship. To take just one final example, there is a fascinating story to be told—much of it yet to be written2—about the various ways in which Kierkegaardian themes have influenced numerous major figures in psychiatry, psychotherapy, and counselling, among them Carl Rogers, Rollo May, R. D. Laing, and Irvin Yalom (see e.g. Laing 1960; Rogers 1961; May 1977; Yalom 1980).

The year 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Kierkegaard's birth and it is also significant as marking the completion of the latest Danish edition of his works, Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter (Søren Kierkegaard's Writings). This latter is especially important as it comes with an exceptionally thorough apparatus that answers many of the questions that have floated around the margins of secondary literature on Kierkegaard, clearly identifying many of the sources that he used or exploited in developing his own ideas and removing the basis for some of the more lurid biographical myths. There will, of course, always be further historical and philological questions to answer, but the achievement of SKS is to free readers of Kierkegaard really to engage with the meaning of his work, the questions it raises (or fails to raise), and its significance for our own thinking—and to do so in ways that do not distort or overlook what he actually wrote. This Handbook has been able to take full advantage of this most recent Kierkegaard scholarship, and we hope that this will therefore contribute to making the present work not only a good cross section of the current state of play of Kierkegaard studies in the English-speaking world, but will also provide an enduring resource for students and scholars for a long time to come.


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—— (ed.) (2011). Kierkegaard's Influence on the Social Sciences (Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources) (Farnham: Ashgate).Find this resource:

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(1) Thus Walter Lowrie, writing that ‘he was never more sane, and the attack upon the Established Church was the logical and necessary outcome of all his thinking’ (Lowrie 1942: 242). It is telling that Lowrie concludes his Short Life with an extract from the journals in which Kierkegaard speaks of the testimony of those who are sacrificed in order to underwrite the belief that God is truly love—even in extremis.

(2) Though see some of the essays in Stewart 2011.